The excitement created by Cleveland’s decision to switch from Brian Hoyer to Johnny Manziel at quarterback has buzzed across the country the last few days, even crackling through the locker room walls at Paul Brown Stadium, where Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton should be as happy about the move as anyone.
That’s because all the hysteria over Manziel’s first start has taken the focus off Dalton’s last one against the Browns, where he completed 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards with three interceptions and a Lilliputian passer rating of 2.0 in a 24-3 loss on national television.
“You don’t want to have a rock-bottom moment to get everybody going,” Dalton said. “But it’s one of those games, one of those things that happen during the season where you can go back and look at things, and get back to doing things the way that you want to. Since that game, we’ve pretty much done that.”
Since that loss, Cincinnati (8-4-1) has won three of four to move back into first place in the AFC North, while Cleveland (7-6) has dropped three of four to slide from first to last, prompting the move to Manziel.
Everything is still in front of the Bengals as they cling to a half-game lead with three to play, but there’s no doubt they’ll be bringing a bit of the past with them when they step on the field at FirstEnergy Stadium this afternoon.
“They dominated us pretty well in that game, showed off a little bit at the end — mostly their fans, which they can’t control,” Bengals cornerback Leon Hall said. “But those visuals are still stuck in my head for sure.”
Redemption is on the mind of defensive end Carlos Dunlap as well.
“This is a huge game for us,” Dunlap said. “And for them. It’s either they win or they’re out. We know what our goals are. They’re in the way of that. We have to go through Cleveland and redeem ourselves from what they did last time.”
What the Browns did last time was dominate the Bengals on both sides of the ball. While much of the attention was on Dalton’s dismal performance, the Cincinnati defense made a poor showing as well.
Cleveland’s offensive line pushed the Bengals around from start to finish as the Browns rushed for 170 yards after gaining 164 on the ground in the three previous games combined.
The successful run game was critical because wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jordan Cameron were out with injuries that night, and wide receiver Josh Gordon was still suspended.
All three of those weapons will be available to Manziel today.
“Well, it’s going to be different, yeah,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “The fact is, we lost the football game here, and so we need to play better in all three phases. They’ve got some additional weapons available, and they’ve made the change at quarterback. In my opinion, they’ve really hit their stride defensively. They’re playing better on defense. In all areas, we’re going to have to play better.”
Dalton has been much better since that first game, and wide receiver A.J. Green has been on the most explosive four-game streak of his career, punctuated last week with 11 catches for a career-high 224 yards against the Steelers.
But the Browns, and specifically cornerback Joe Haden, have a history of removing Green from the offense, which is a big reason Dalton has completed 53.3 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 56.3 passer rating in his last four games against Cleveland.
Green has 12 catches for 81 yards and no touchdowns in his last three vs. the Browns.
“They do a really good job,” Dalton said. “With all the coverages that they’re playing, the man coverages and stuff, they feel like there’s always a guy around the receiver, you’re always having to make a tough catch. It’s not like guys are running wide open in these zones.
“We know (Haden) is going to follow A.J.,” Dalton added. “We’ve got to find ways to get A.J. his touches.”
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